What is Literary Voice? How Does a Writer Find Voice?
As writers we hear a LOT about this word: voice. So much so, it almost begins to take on magical connotations. Agents demand it. Editors reject piles and piles of manuscripts for not having it. We’re told to discover it, like it’s a hidden jewel in our soul, and if we mine deep enough, we’ll find it!
*insert discordant scratch on record player*
It took me a long time to realize that the words of the all-wise Inigo Montoya apply here: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
When people talk about ‘voice’ like the hidden jewel to discover in themselves, they mean it in the poetic, stylistic sense, like on Project Runway when the judges are say, that designer has a distinctive point of view or ‘voice.’ They mean, there is a sense of visual and artistic cohesion to their pieces, in the way that you can tell an impressionist is different from Picasso is different from Jackson Pollack. Or in Project Runway terms, Seth Aaron’s in-your-face dramatic sensibilities are very different from Anya’s flowing, feminine, wearable drapey dresses are different from Mondo’s style. This use of the term ‘voice’ is very useful for the visual arts and for writing poetry.
However, it’s NOT AT ALL USEFUL in the practical sense for fiction writers, because, unless you’re writing literary fiction (and even then, only rarely), voice is meant to be about the voice of your CHARACTER, not about your authorial stylistic voice. When agents and editors reject manuscripts for voice, it’s because the voice of thecharacter’s personality isn’t coming through. Ironically, because of this false idea of what voice is, authors are over-writing with their prose styles and not letting character’s voices speak.
Because here’s the kicker: readers rarely care about how pretty or well constructed your sentences are. All readers (and agents and editors) want is to get pulled emotionally into a story. Which is accomplished through your character feeling like a fully-realized, complex human—via voice. Voice is merely the term to encompass all the ways this full character realization is translated onto the page (in every single line of text) through:
Internal Thought and Reflection
Observation and Description
Movement (as in, blocking the movement of the characters within the setting, like actors on a stage)
How does your character see the world? What are they like? Down to earth? Snobby? Intellectual and detached? Overly empathetic? You as the writer have to be in their heads, whether you’re writing in first person or third. That’s where you discover voice—not in yourself, but in your character. It’s not how you see the world that matters, it’s how they see it.
Do they have a penchant for gambling or drugs? They’ll always want to align themselves with the person in the room likeliest to give them their next fix. Every thought in their head, observation they make, thing they say, and movement they make is to get them closer to this goal. Through this, the reader should feel their personality because the reader is in their heads. As the writer, it’s your duty to see and write through the lens of the character. It’s up to you to get in their minds. Remember, you’re telling their story, not yours. Get as close to them as you can, even down to the language level—this is where their personality can shine through.
When I began to shift my paradigm to think this way, writing began to feel like an entirely different animal. And that’s when my (pile of) rejection slips started turning into acceptance notices.
Here’s my nice and fancy definition of voice to hang your hat on:
The manner of language by which an author expresses personality to narrate a story. Voice is used to close the distance between narrator and reader so that the reader is immersed in the ‘feel’ and personality of the story that the author intentionally means to convey. All language—every line of text—including internal thought, observation, movement, and external dialogue should be filtered through voice.
I'll be teaching a class online this Fall on this topic if anyone's interested, here's a little intro video below.